Dr KN Kesari (1875-1953) was a renowned physician of Madras city, whose Kesari Kuteeram Ayurveda Oushadasala was a landmark Royapettah’s Westcott Road. Born in Inamavamelloor in Ongole District of present day Andhra Pradesh, Kota Narasimham as he was originally known, lost his father when he was just five. The mother had to face severe hardships and when he was 11, unable to bear the distress of his mother, he ran away from home and arrived in Madras city. After several initial setbacks, he succeeded in getting a scholarship at the Hindu Theological School (Mint Street) and studied there. In order to differentiate him from another student of the same name, he was called Narakesari by his teacher which he shortened in later years to KN Kesari. His mother joined him in the city in 1889 only to pass away a few months later.
Kesari learnt Ayurvedic medicine and apprenticed under Pandit D Gopalacharyulu who practised at the Kanyaka Parameswari Temple Dharma Ayurveda Vaidyasala. This, run by the Sri Kanyaka Parameswari Devasthanam, was in Godown Street, George Town. In 1900, Dr Kesari set up his own practice in the same street, under the name of Kesari Kuteeram, along with some partners. Differences of opinion among them soon led to one of the early trade mark disputes in Madras city, the High Court’s judgement of 1929 finally settling it in favour of Dr Kesari. In the meanwhile the business expanded with a new office in Bandar Street and a branch in Secunderabad. The medicines such as Lodhra, Amrita and Arka became household names. Dr Kesari designed his own advertisements for these products which were published regularly in Telugu magazines such as Andhra Prakasika. Further expansion in business led to the business and his residence shifting to Egmore.
In the first years of the 20th century, Dr Kesari commissioned the Lodhra Printing Press at Poonamallee High Road from where he began publishing Grihalakshmi, a Telugu magazine aimed at women. It later became known for its intellectual content and for championing the rights of women. Following the death of his first wife after a prolonged illness, Dr Kesari selected Madhavi, a lady from Kerala, who was well-versed in Ayurveda and married her. She was a qualified specialist in curing the illnesses of women and children and set up practice along with her husband. The marriage too was blessed and the couple had a daughter in 1919 – Sarada Devi. In later years, they adopted a girl, Vasantha. A branch of Kesari Kuteeram was set up in Kerala as well. In 1937 the Kesari Kuteeram business shifted to Westcott Road, Royapettah. This became a huge establishment, with a handsome bungalow in the middle, surrounded by the workshops of the business where the medicines were prepared.
Dr Kesari became an ardent champion of women’s causes. His magazine established an annual award for women which comprised a gold bracelet. The Grihalakshmi Swarnakankanam as it became known, was considered a great honour. Dr Kesari contributed liberally to social organisations set for women’s uplift such as the Andhra Mahila Sabha of Durgabai Deshmukh, the Seva Sadan of Lady Andal Venkata Subba Rao, the Avvai Home of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Hindu Yuvathi Saranalaya of Yamini Poorna Tilakamma. He also personally sheltered several women, all of whom were given education and encouraged to become independent.
Never forgetting the struggles he faced to get a good education, he assisted in the management of a school that was set up to give education to the people of Andhra origin who lived in Madras. In 1943, Dr. K. N. Kesari offered to take over the management of the institution and raised it to middle school and later, to high school level. The first batch of pupils appeared for the SSLC Public examinations in March 1948. This later became Kesari High School.
Dr. Kesari endowed the school with a spacious building at 163, Royapettah High Road (formerly Palm Grove, the palatial residence of S Doraiswami Iyer, a famed lawyer), valued at that time at Rs 70,000. In addition, he donated Rs. 50,000 to the school. He also constituted a committee of trustees to manage the affairs of the institution and administer the properties.
In April 1947, Dr. Kesari donated a further Rs. 1 lakh to the trust basically for education of girls. To provide for expansion of the activities of the institutions and the starting and running of similar institutions in the future, it was decided to form a society under the Societies Registration Act 1860. Accordingly the `Kesari Education Society’ was formed and registered in February 1951. Subsequently, an elementary school was started there with Telugu as the medium of instruction.
Towards the end of his life, Dr Kesari became distressed on coming to know that people were speaking of him as though he hailed from a wealthy family background. To set the record straight he wrote his memoirs in Telugu, titled Chinnanati Mutchatlu. This, many years after his demise, was translated into English by his daughter Vasantha Menon and edited by his grandson K Balakesari. VAK Ranga Rao informs me that the original work had comments which were acceptable in the times in which they were written. These were edited when a second edition of the biography came out in Telugu in the 1970s.
The Kesari heritage lives on. The school was upgraded to a high school in 1981. Today, the Kesari Education Society manages the following schools: Kesari High school, Mylapore (English & Telugu medium), Kesari High School, T. Nagar, Kesari Primary School, T. Nagar (Telugu medium). The Kesari Kuteeram business too thrives, now in its 108th year. The old bungalow has however given way to a multistoreyed building that houses many of Dr Kesari’s descendants including his famous musician great grandson – P Unnikrishnan.